As U.S. Open warm-ups go, the Booz Allen Classic was filled with more foreshadowing than a Stephen King novel. Pinehurst and the year’s second major were 340 miles and four days away, but an event that is often an afterthought on the PGA Tour schedule set a promising stage for the 105th U.S. Open.
Flashback week in the Washington suburbs featured a classic U.S. Open-style course, albeit softened by rain and a tame setup; a vintage Open contender refusing to act his age and a trip to the winner’s circle that’s starting to become Sergio Garcia’s pre-U.S. Open routine.
Garcia’s two-stroke victory June 12 over Davis Love III (66), Ben Crane (67) and Adam Scott (68) marks the Spaniard’s second triumph the week before the U.S. Open.
“They should just move the U.S. Open one week earlier,” said Garcia, who closed with 65 for a course-record tying, 14-under 270 total.
Or maybe Garcia needs to show up at Pinehurst with the same, simple putting philosophy – a tip he received earlier in the week from Scott – that helped him lead the Booz Allen field in putting and seems a perfect fit for No. 2’s domed greens.
“Mainly it was hitting short putts, 2-, 3-footers and keep rolling it in,” said Garcia, who hadn’t played a practice round at No. 2 prior to Open week. “Don’t worry about the stroke or anything, just worry about seeing the ball going in the hole.”
Everything seemed to go in for Garcia early in Round 4 at Congressional Country Club. He played his first 10 holes in 7 under – a stretch that included an 18-footer for eagle at the par-5 sixth – to take command, avoid a Wachovia Championship-like collapse, and claim his sixth Tour title.
Despite bogeys at Nos. 15 and 18, Garcia took the title when Scott’s approach from 137 yards at No. 17 took a hard-luck bounce into the water hazard behind the green. The Australian made bogey and dropped two shots back.
“I’d give anything to have that shot back at 17,” Scott said. “It was a bit of a bad break, but you have the good breaks when you win.”
Ageless Tom Kite’s title hopes ended long before he reached Congressional’s back nine. But not before he had pieced together one of his most consistent weeks of the year on his way to the 54-hole lead and a shot at Tour history. Just days after failing to keep his 31-year U.S. Open streak alive, Kite put himself in position to become the oldest winner in Tour history with a third-round 66 and a one-shot lead over a six-pack of high-profile contenders, including Scott and Ernie Els.
At 55, Kite was trying to surpass Sam Snead as the Tour’s oldest winner. Snead was 52 when he won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open.
Earlier last week, Kite went to nearby Rockville, Md., and failed to qualify for the U.S. Open – a tournament he won in 1992 and hasn’t missed since 1973. He hasn’t won on Tour since 1993.
Kite – who bogeyed three of his first nine holes on his way to a closing 74 and a tie for 13th – is playing the Tour this year on a special one-time exemption for players in the top 50 on the career money list. He has made only three cuts in 10 events.
“This is why I came back. This is the only reason that I took this little challenge to come back and play the tour, was to challenge myself, to see if I had what it takes to contend, to see if I have what it takes to possibly win a golf tournament,” Kite said.
Although Kite can’t take his new-found momentum into Pinehurst, there were others who left Congressional with plenty of confidence.
Love posted his second top 10 in three weeks after playing his final 34 holes in 8 under. Els, who won the ’97 U.S. Open at Congressional, struggled to find the fairway all week but had just one three-putt and was in contention until a back-nine 40 Sunday.
Few, however, have as much momentum as Garcia. Last year, he won the Buick Classic prior to the U.S. Open, where he tied for 20th. He also excels on classic, Open-style courses such as Congressional, Westchester (Buick) and Colonial (2001).
His victory also helped ease the pain of his woeful finish at the Wachovia Championship last month. After starting the final round with a six-stroke lead, Garcia finished tied with Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk after 72 holes and completed the collapse with a three-putt bogey on the first playoff hole.
Garcia said he even felt haunted by what he called the “Wachovia ghost” when he missed the green on the par-3 final hole at Congressional. The spirits were kind in the end, though.
“I guess it turned out right this time,” said Garcia, who will attempt to become the first player to win the U.S. Open after winning the week before. “It’s not the way I like to finish, but a win is a win.”